For a number of aspiring Chattanooga novelists, NaNoWriMo means 30 days to deadline.
Seven people gathered in the community room at One North Shore in the last Saturday of October to plan their novels. Amidst Calaveras decorations, pads of paper and cups of apple cider, they shared their projects, and plotted how they would actually walk away with a manuscript in a month’s time. The goal: 50,000 words cajoled, splattered and laid down into something resembling a narrative. Something that adds up to a book.
These writers are some of the 250 souls in Chattanooga signed up to participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short), according to Municipal Liaison volunteer Shannon Vest. An additional 200 from the greater Chattanooga area will also start writing Nov. 1 and finish Nov. 30.
NaNoWriMo began in 1999. The sentence, “The World Needs Your Novel,” sits at the top of the nonprofit’s website. Last year, 310,000 people (full disclosure: I was one of them) from six continents attempted to craft their stories during NaNoWriMo.
And sometimes, those manuscripts become full-blown, published novels. NaNoWriMo helped authors like Sara Gruen write “Water for Elephants,” Jason Hough, “The Darwin Elevator,” and Hugh Howey, “Wool.” These authors accomplished the writer’s dream: To be picked up by one of the big publishing companies that pay authors good money.
Of the local writers gathered planning NaNoWriMo strategy, Tyler Kraha sits idly turning one of the tiny Rubik’s Cubes Vest provided. He was struggling with plot. He wanted to write a noir novel, but how to stay true to the genre while being original? Kraha was recently laid off—a good thing, he says. Now, he has time to write. He motions to a tan messenger bag where his old laptop rests. It doesn’t access the Internet. The only way he can back up his novel is by saving it to a thumb drive. But that’s the way he prefers it: “Internet distracts me.”
Elizabeth “Ouisi” Hamilton has the opposite problem: not enough time. As a dedicated customer service representative for Covenant Transport, she has weekends free to write during the first half of November. But then, as the trucking industry picks up, her time evaporates and she won’t have any free time until the end of the year. “So whenever there is time, I will write,” she says.
Last year, Hamilton created a Google document and wrote whenever possible: during her lunch break, in the backseat of her car as her husband drove their kids to school. She finished with three days to spare. “So if I push myself harder this year, I think I can do it,” Hamilton says.
The strategy to finish a NaNoWriMo novel is simple: write. It breaks down to about 1,667 words a day. Tacy Williams Beck, who taught English and rhetoric in Maryland Classical Schools, now lives in the Chattanooga area, raises her four children and writes at realhousekeeping.com.
“I’ve wanted to write a book for a very long time, at least five years now, and this is the impetus I need to finally crank out those 50,000 words,” Beck wrote in an email. Keeping up with the daily 1,667 words is her biggest challenge. To keep herself motivated, she plans to reward herself with incentives along the way—and a big one at the end. “If—and when!—I make it to the word count goal, I’ll probably treat myself to a concert ticket, and go see one of my favorite bands perform live.”
Writers’ best friend
Shannon Vest volunteers at Chattanooga’s Municipal Liaison, the person that schedules write-ins, organizes parties, and generally keeps people motivated during the month of November. She’s also writing a novel of her own.
Last year, she tried NaNoWriMo at the suggestion of a friend. They were walking through McKay Books and Vest noticed all the genres and sub-genres. “Someone’s going to like it. Someone’s going to hate it, no matter what it is,” Vest says.
She is currently working on self-publishing a paranormal memoir that grew out of the first NaNoWriMo novel. “NaNoWriMo taught me to go with the flow,” she says Of course, there’s the traditional publishing route. “I’m going the opposite way,” she says. But with the nontraditional route: “I’ll be happy to sell 100 books.”
NaNoWriMo pulls together these people to create a community for the month. Vest hopes to make the Chattanooga region a more active one, with other people volunteering to become the municipal liaison, and the general public recognizing “Oh, it’s NaNoWriMo time,” when a group of NaNoWriMo-ers gather in Barnes & Noble, The Hot Chocolatier, The Grocery Bar or coffee shops in the area to write. Write-ins are good for business, Vest says, as a lot of coffee and snacks are sold during the process.
One author’s tale
Echelon Press published Kelle Z Riley’s first novel, “Dangerous Affairs,” in 2006. A Chicagoan transplanted to Chattanooga, Riley is a member of the Chattanooga Writer’s Guild. She has written nine novels. Only one is published, “and that’s a strategic plan,” she says, because ever since 9/11, the book market has trended towards darker stories. She’s waiting until the market changes before pushing her other books.
She tried NaNoWriMo, back in 2010. But it uses a different writing process than she developed. While NaNoWriMo urges writers to dump their thoughts quickly, Riley prefers to write, then revise what she wrote, and write some more. “I actually took longer than if I followed my own process,” she says.
There’s an acronym among writers: BICHOK, “Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.” “Basically, it means sit there and do it,” Riley says. Sometimes, “My goal of the day is to go to the computer, find the file and open it.” She keeps a Post-It note at eye level at her desk. It has the number of pages she plans to complete for the week, about 20. Her first novel took two years to write. Since then, she’s written a book a year.
Writing is her side job. Riley works as a project manager at a waste treatment plant. Her day job requires long hours, lots of travel. It’s not a nine-to-five. “I’m lucky to have a very supportive husband,” she says. Writing a novel means mac-and-cheese dinners. “You don’t watch a lot of TV,” you don’t sleep as much and you don’t see people.
She says NaNoWriMo is good practice for the discipline needed to write novels. But it’s exhausting to write 50,000 words in one month. She suggests writing 10,000 or 20,000 words a month after that. Most writers, she says, are not overnight successes. In Riley’s case, she has been building her audience and her brand for 10 years.
The publishing side
Karen Stone says it’s human nature for people to want to tell their stories. Stone, publisher at Waldenhouse Publishers, a book preparation company based on Signal Mountain, notes, “75 percent of people I’ve met say they’ve written a book or they want to write a book.” She gets that comment from acquaintances at a party to a new hairdresser. “It cuts across all classes. All types of people,” she says.
NaNoWriMo has taken off during a time when traditional publishing has changed. Besides the traditional, big-name book publishers, Stone says authors can self-publish or keep a blog. And the “Big Five” book publishers (there once were six) are struggling. Now, the book publishers are so large they will only accept the work of someone famous or authors who already have success.
So why a novel? Why keep stringing sentences together when Michael Bay can produce a pretty sweet explosion on an IMAX movie screen? Stone says it depends on the person doing the reading. Whenever she hears of a book being adapted to a movie, she wonders how the producers will cram the details of the book into the film. “It’s a different creation,” she says. “Some people just prefer to see what the man or woman is trying to paint with words.”
At the kickoff party the week before the NaNoWriMo writers were to start, some of the writers discussed the question: When will they know they have made it? For Isabella King, 16, it will be when she’s recognized in public. Hamilton says it was when Rob Pattinson is cast in a movie adaptation of her story. Havin King, 19, (no relation to Isabella) says, “That first time someone sends an email to me, congratulating me on the story.”
“Oh, there we go, yeah,” Isabella says. Then, she adds, maybe making it means getting a hate letter, because then it shows the story matters enough that people care.
To learn more about NaNoWriMo, visit nanowrimo.org.